With continued dry weather this summer, hay stores may not have recovered from a poor year in 2022. With these thoughts in mind, maybe you harvested hay from the roadside or purchased “ditch hay” and will be feeding it soon. Emergency hay supplies like this can be a much-needed forage source, however there are several things for you to think about and keep in mind as you feed.

1)      Did you walk the road ditch and pick up trash before you hayed it?

Even if you did walk the road ditch, watch carefully as you feed and pick up any trash that may cause problems. This is especially true if the hay was purchased and you can’t be certain how thorough trash collection before harvest was.

Metal parts, plastic, glass shards, and all other kinds of trash could have ended up in the hay. Ingested metal or plastic objects can cause hardware disease in cattle, and debris can cause issues with feeding/ranch equipment or cause lameness in animals, so it’s important to be extra vigilant as you feed that hay. 

We’ll talk about quality later, but if your roadside hay is low quality, it may be tempting to grind it before feeding.  This can break up trash into smaller pieces and spread it throughout the hay, limiting animals’ ability to sort, not to mention the damage that can occur to the grinder itself.

2)      What are the plants that are growing in the ditch?

Did you observe if any of the plants are annuals or mostly perennials? Are the grasses cool-season, warm-season, or a mix? When did you harvest the hay? Depending on the type of grasses and timing of haying, this will affect the quality of the hay. Forage quality declines as plants mature. Cool-season grasses like smooth bromegrass mature in June and warm-season grasses like big bluestem mature in August.

Are the forbs in the hay common forbs that you have in your pastures? Are there any noxious weeds?  Seeds from these plants may spread where the hay is fed, so a good question to ask is, “Are the plants present those that you would want growing next spring where you fed this winter?”

Was the road ditch sprayed with a herbicide? If so, what was the herbicide? Some herbicides are not labeled for forages that will be fed to livestock and some herbicides may have carryover and remain active in the hay and the manure from the cattle that eat the hay. Consider carefully where you feed this hay, knowing you may have some possible herbicide effects to deal with.

3)      What is the nutrient quality of the hay?

Taking a sample of the hay and having it analyzed is the only way to know its quality. Once you know the nutrient quality, you can formulate rations, along with any needed supplement(s), to meet the nutrient requirements of the cows you are feeding.  Road hay often includes part of the ditch that hasn’t been annually harvested, so previous years growth will be mixed in with the new growth this year.  Even if harvested at optimum times for quality, this can impact overall hay quality significantly.

Road ditch hay can provide needed forage. With a few precautions and a forage analysis, it can help you meet your cow’s nutrient requirements this winter.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: ben.beckman@unl.edu